Most insiders credit Knudsen with reinventing Pontiac in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, son of GM President William S. "Big Bill" Knudsen, got his nickname on a hunting trip with his dad, because they were bunkmates.
The younger Knudsen graduated from MIT with an engineering degree in 1936, then joined GM in 1939 as a tool engineer with Pontiac. He worked in the plants, setting up assembly lines. In 1950, he became director of GM's Process Development, then moved to Allison Transmission in Indianapolis in 1953 as a manufacturing manager. Then, in 1955, he went to Detroit Diesel Engine Division. When he joined Pontiac in 1957, at 44, he was the youngest car-division manager.
Knudsen completely changed Pontiac's image. He made radical updates to the product mix, and was largely responsible for the 1959 Wide Track Pontiac and the 1962 Grand Prix. While some felt Knudsen was shaking things up too much, that he made changes just to make change, most felt his instincts were correct. He was widely known as a good administrator, a good manager, and a true car guy.
Knudsen also pushed Pontiac into motorsports. While many laughed at the thought of Pontiac racing, the division won its first race, the 1957 Daytona race. Pontiac went on to dominate NASCAR and drag racing until GM's corporate ban on racing took effect. Knudsen left Pontiac to become Chevrolet general manager in 1961. He remained in that post until 1968, when he was passed over for promotion to GM president. Six days later, after 30 years with GM, he left to become president of Ford. Just a year later, Henry Ford II fired him, after conflicts with Lee Iacocca. He then ran White Motor Co. for a short time, and eventually became national commissioner for NASCAR. He died in 1998.
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